Adam and Eve

A common theme at this blog is that I don't like blanket statements to the effect that science and religion are incompatible. The main problem I have is that “religion” means so many different things to different people that it is pointless to paint with such a broad brush. A secondary point is that science is vast, and most of it does not address anything of interest to the world's major religions.

However, we can certainly make the more modest claim that specific findings of science are at odds with some commonly held religious views. In particular, evolution at least appears to conflict with certain doctrines that are commonly held among Christians. That this is so is not controversial even among Christian thinkers, as evidenced by the vast literature struggling to show the conflicts are only illusory.

Now, I think the specific arguments made in this literature are mostly unconvincing on their merits, for reasons I explain at length in Among the Creationists. There is, however, a more general problem that I have with many such reconciliation efforts. It is this: All too often the would-be reconciler imagines his job to be complete when he has shown that science and doctrine do not flatly contradict each other. This is setting the bar rather low. The real issue is whether a plausible and satisfying reconciliation can be achieved.

A good example is Adam and Eve. Science points rather strongly to the conclusion that they did not exist. However, that they were actual human beings who really lived is central both to the message of the New Testament and to the doctrine of original sin. To the extent that such things are important to your conception of Christianity, you will need to address this problem.

The actual problem is that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve seems perfectly clear that they were the only human beings on the planet immediately following their creation. The relevant verses are Genesis 2:4-8:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up--for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

That there was “no one to till the ground” certainly suggests that there were no other humans around at the time. And that God first formed man from the dust of the ground prior to breathing life into him shows that it was the origin of Adam's (and shortly Eve's) physical form that was being accounted for, and not just his spiritual condition.

Biologists, however, have shown through genetic analyses that there was never a time when the human population numbered two. Rather, the most conservative estimates for the minimum size of a genetic bottleneck is around two thousand.

What to do? There would seem to be two general strategies. We could deny the genetic evidence and argue that there was, indeed, a time when there were only two people on the planet. Or we could deny that Adam and Eve were the only people on the planet shortly after their creation.

Writing in Crisis magazine, Dennis Bonnette opts for the first route. After explaining why Adam and Eve cannot be allegorized out of existence without doing serious damage to central Christian doctrines, he writes (please forgive the lengthy quotation, but I don't think it can be cut off without making the point unclear):

Fourth, specific scientific arguments against Adam and Eve have proven not as forceful as many presently believe (Gauger 2012). For example, some have claimed that effective population size estimates for the last several million years would not permit just two true humans to have lived during that time. Still, the technical concept of average effective population size estimates should not be confused with an actual “bottleneck” (a temporarily reduced population) which may be much smaller. Effective population size estimates can vary from as high as 14,000 (Blum 2011) to as low as 2,000 (Tenesa 2007), depending on the methods used.

Such calculations rely upon many assumptions about mutation rate, recombination rate, and other factors, that are known to vary widely. All of this entails retrospective calculations about events in the far distant past, for which we have no directly verifiable data. For such reasons, some experts have concluded that effective population size cannot be determined using DNA sequence differences alone (Sjödin 2005; Hawks 2008).

Indeed, the most famous genetic study proclaimed as a “scientific objection” to Adam and Eve turned out to be based on methodological errors. An article by geneticist Francisco J. Ayala appearing in the journal, Science (1995), led many to believe that a founding population of only two individuals was impossible. Ayala based his challenge to monogenism (two sole founders of humanity) on the large number of versions (alleles) of the particular gene HLA-DRB1, which are present in the current population. Accepting the common ancestor theory, he claimed that there were thirty-two ancient lineages of the HLA-DRB1 gene prior to the Homo/Pan split (approximately seven million years ago). Over time, these “pre-split” lineages, themselves, evolved into the new additional versions present today. Because each individual carries only two versions of a gene, a single founding pair could not have passed on the thirty-two versions that Ayala claimed existed some seven million years ago—either at that time or at any time since. A bottleneck of just two true humans, Adam and Eve, was “scientifically impossible.”

However, Ayala’s claim of thirty-two ancient HLA-DRB1 lineages (prior to the Homo/Pan split) was wrong because of methodological errors. The number of lineages was subsequently adjusted by Bergstrom (1998) to just seven at the time of the split, with most of the genetic diversity appearing in the last 250,000 years. A still later study coming out of Bergstrom's group inferred that just four such lineages existed more than five million years ago, but that a few more appeared soon thereafter (von Salomé 2007). While two mating hominins can transmit four lineages, the few additional later ones still require explanation.

These genetic studies, based on many assumptions and use of computer models, do not tell us how the origin of the human race actually took place. But, they do show (1) that methodological limitations and radical contingency are inherent in such studies, which are employed to make retroactive judgments about deeply ancient populations that can never be subject to direct observation, and (2) that present scientific claims against the possibility of a literal Adam and Eve are not definitive (Gauger 2012, 105-122).

I'm afraid I don't understand the genetics well enough to assess this argument, so I'll leave that aside. If anyone wants to explain it to me in the comments, I'd appreciate it. There is, however, a more general problem to the approach Bonnette is taking.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it is effectively meaningless to talk about the precise moment that a particular species came into existence. It is like asking for the precise moment in a person's life when they changed from being a child to being an adult. It's not clear what it even means to ask, “At the precise moment that Homo sapiens appeared on the planet, how many representatives of the species were there?” Any attempt to answer that question is going to rely on arbitrary distinctions about what defines species Homo sapiens.

Bonnette, and people who argue like him, are trying to shoehorn an antiquated understanding of what a species is into the picture of natural history revealed by science. The traditional religious view, one clearly implied by scripture, is that animals are one thing, and human beings are a fundamentally different kind of thing. Bonnette's arguments are only coherent under this way of thinking, but evolution shows it to be fundamentally mistaken. Species labels are locally useful, when you are trying at a given moment in history to impose order on nature's chaos. But a species is not the kind of thing that springs into existence at a clearly defined moment of time.

Nor is it relevant here to argue that humans are fundamentally different in that we have souls, while animals do not. We are talking here about the moment in evolutionary history just prior to God's introduction of a soul into an ancient hominid.

Actually, though, this is all just a preamble to the real reason I am calling attention to Bonnette's article. You see, he also has some choice words for defenders of the second approach, and here I think he is on much safer ground. But this post is already quite long, so we shall save that for later.

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Isn't the blanket claim regarding the incompatibility of science and religion typically directed at science being evidence-based while religion is faith-based (i.e. on belief unconcerned with evidence - typically belief in absence of, or contrary to, evidence). In short: their epistemologies are in direct conflict.

That's not to say that religious arguments sometimes include appeals to supposed evidence - of which you are of course aware (loved ATC btw) - but when the evidence contradicts the claim that is defended, their belief often remains unwavering (i.e. fundamentally faith-based).

By Alain Van Hout (not verified) on 21 Dec 2014 #permalink

Is it a waste of time to try to teach a pig to sing because the pig doesn't want to learn, because the pig can't learn, or because the pig doesn't believe in music?

By Don A in Penns… (not verified) on 21 Dec 2014 #permalink

The issue is none of the above. The issue for humanity is how to survive. Science and religion have different contributions to human thought on solving the survival quest.
The division whether propositions can be tested in a sort time by a specific test (science) or in a long time where the test is the survival on the supporters of the assumptions (religion). Both have many different propositions under examination at any moment. Thought in both spheres of influence help humanity to survive.
I go one step further and claim the observations of life and of today’s science must have the same postulates which makes the Theory of Everything.

By John Hodge (not verified) on 21 Dec 2014 #permalink

One thing to remember is that the Bible itself is not terribly consistent on whether Adam and Eve were the first humans.

The typical story we are all taught is actually based on Genesis Chapter 2. Starting in Genesis 1:24 or thereabouts (my Bible is the New English Bible that doesn't break up the lines in verse as cleanly) the book just says that "male and female he created them" and leaves it at that. No numbers.

We don't get the Adam story until chapter 2. By Chapter 4 we get Cain and Abel and and Cain having a son Enoch, but it isn't clear who Cain's wife was if Adam and Eve were the only two people. Chapter 5 gives the stories of the Nephilim and we get to Noah, who had three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth) and even if we're generous about it that still creates all kinds of problems of descent and inbreeding.

Anyhow, the whole issue I am bringing up is that while it is patently clear that the story of Adam isn't any truer than that of Yggdrasil and Odin, or the old Greek myths of Chronos and Uranos, the interpretation we deal with more often in the US is a thoroughly modern one, which rather ignores large parts of the text.

I'd also agree that you are correct, that religion means so many different things that it's hard to pin down. I will also throw out that a lot of atheists have a too-simplistic view of it. That is, I don't think too many religious people treat the Bible like we treat a physics text. Otherwise no religious people could have ever been doctors or biologists or work at NASA.

You can't assume religion arose to explain the world in the same way we try to explain the world scientifically -- its functions are far more wide-ranging and complex.

For the mainstream Christian denominations, there is not a problem:

1) The Bible is understood as allegorical rather than literally true, per the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

2) Science is understood to provide the most correct description of the natural world.

3) The role of the deity is understood as one of bringing the entire universe into existence or bringing the soul to humanity, both of which propositions are untestable and therefore do not conflict with science.

The problem arose with the particularly American form of fundamentalism known as dominionism, that has sought and obtained political power, and polarized the public's views of these issues.

Keywords to search for more information: Dominionism, Rousas Rushdoony, Gary North. A good place to read high-quality journaism on the religious right and dominionism in particular: talk2action.org

Alain--

Isn’t the blanket claim regarding the incompatibility of science and religion typically directed at science being evidence-based while religion is faith-based (i.e. on belief unconcerned with evidence – typically belief in absence of, or contrary to, evidence). In short: their epistemologies are in direct conflict.

This claim is often made, but I don't see why a person cannot reasonably say that science is good for answering some questions, while religious faith is good for others.

Of course, this is an academic point. In practice I think there are all sorts of arguments to be made against the veracity of religious claims, both their substance and the methods by which those claims are said to be established. I just don't think the problem is a fundamental incompatibility with science.

G, points 1&2 are correct, but 3 should read, "the role of deity is that of bringing order to creation, and setting forth the relationships through which this order is mediated."

Evolution is part of this ordering of the universe.

What to do? There would seem to be two general strategies. We could deny the genetic evidence and argue that there was, indeed, a time when there were only two people on the planet.

I have to wonder: If you're going to claim that God created (or ensouled, or whatever) two people and arranged for them to survive and populate the entire planet, why not deny the genetic evidence? Maybe God just mutated the crap out of each new child born back then, so that within a few generations they accumulated all the genetic diversity of modern humans. I mean, why not? The whole story has to rely on miracles anyway; why not posit a few more miracles to account for our DNA?

Okay, so I'll take a crack at critiquing Bonnette's genetics arguments. Disclaimer: I am not a geneticist, I'm sleepy and I'm writing this in a hurry. More knowledgeable people are welcome to correct it.

Before we get into it, let's define "effective population size." Wikipedia provides a nice definition: "the number of individuals in an idealised population that has a value of any given population genetic quantity that is equal to the value of that quantity in the population of interest. "

So, to break this down: Suppose you wish to fit a particular idealized population model (e.g. the Wright-Fisher model) to some real data. Suppose there is a particular genetic quantity you are interested in studying, like the inbreeding coefficient or the mean genetic diversity. Suppose your data pertains to a particular region of the genome. Then the effective population size is the size you would have to plug into that particular population model, in order to return the same value of that particular genetic quantity that you have in the real data, for that particular part of the genome.

In other words, there is no one true "effective size" for a population, even for a specific point or interval in time. Its definition depends on what model you're using, what genetic properties you're interested in, and what genes you're looking at.

For example, some have claimed that effective population size estimates for the last several million years would not permit just two true humans to have lived during that time. Still, the technical concept of average effective population size estimates should not be confused with an actual “bottleneck” (a temporarily reduced population) which may be much smaller.

Problems with the above:

1. Effective population size should not be confused with actual censused population size at all, average or no average.

2. Actual population census sizes are almost always larger than effective population sizes, and to my knowledge they are never much smaller. At most, the effective population size can be twice as large as the actual population size, and that's only found in artificially managed populations (zoos and such) where we can ensure that every individual will have exactly the same number of offspring. That would certainly not be the case for primitive hominids...or modern humans...or the first generations of humanity as described in Genesis.

3. For a population of fluctuating size, the effective average population size is approximately the harmonic mean of the population sizes at each generation. The harmonic mean is dominated by the smallest numbers you plug into it. So Bonnette is wrong; bottleneck sizes are usually not much smaller than the average effective population size.

Effective population size estimates can vary from as high as 14,000 (Blum 2011) to as low as 2,000 (Tenesa 2007), depending on the methods used.

Problems with the above, in decreasing order of severity:

1) These estimates may vary, but none of them are remotely compatible with an ancestral population of just two humans. Population size estimates have logarithmic-ish uncertainties, so the order of magnitude is what's most important. If one researcher gets 5,000 and another gets 10,000? That's pretty similar. If a third researcher gets 5? That would be way off. Bonnette is implying that if published estimates vary, then just about any number is equally legit. That's not so.

2) Because there is no single definition of effective population size, it's not necessarily a problem if estimates vary. All these estimates could be simultaneously correct, provided they refer to different genetic quantities or different stretches of the genome. I'm not saying they actually are all correct, but they could be.

3) I don't actually see how Bonnette gets a "2,000" figure from Tenesa 2007. As I understand it, that study calculated an effective size of 2500 for the ancestors of Eurasian humans, but 7000 for modern African humans. This is not surprising, since the humans that left Africa went through additional bottlenecks as they migrated.

Such calculations rely upon many assumptions about mutation rate, recombination rate, and other factors, that are known to vary widely. All of this entails retrospective calculations about events in the far distant past, for which we have no directly verifiable data.

This seems like the usual creationist boilerplate about "science is hard, scientists are fallible and research results are uncertain, therefore we can throw it all out the window and rely on our mistranslated, poorly copied book of ancient myths and legends instead."

For such reasons, some experts have concluded that effective population size cannot be determined using DNA sequence differences alone (Sjödin 2005; Hawks 2008).

Broadly speaking, this is true, and indeed in some cases there is no meaningful effective population size--in other words, there's no size that you can plug into your idealized population model and get out the same values that you find in the real-world population. That doesn't mean the actual population size is impossible to estimate, though, and it certainly doesn't mean that extreme sizes (like 2) are plausible.

However, Ayala’s claim of thirty-two ancient HLA-DRB1 lineages (prior to the Homo/Pan split) was wrong because of methodological errors. The number of lineages was subsequently adjusted by Bergstrom (1998) to just seven at the time of the split, with most of the genetic diversity appearing in the last 250,000 years. A still later study coming out of Bergstrom’s group inferred that just four such lineages existed more than five million years ago, but that a few more appeared soon thereafter (von Salomé 2007). While two mating hominins can transmit four lineages, the few additional later ones still require explanation.

OK, several severe problems here, that basically invalidate this whole section. (By the way, don't confuse "alleles" with "lineages." Each lineage is an evolutionary family of alleles.)

1) So far as I can see, Ayala did not commit any methodological errors. What he did was to build his phylogenetic trees based on only the exons (coding regions) of the HLA-DRB1 gene, whereas later researchers looked at the introns as well. That's not an error--I don't think the intron sequences were even available to Ayala. And it's probably not surprising to find that the existing intron variation is more recent than the exon variation. After all, the introns are mostly ignored by natural selection, so they can mutate and drift faster.

2) I'm also not sure the later studies actually disagree with Ayala's result--at least, not the one Bonnette is talking about. They seem to agree that the lineages he identified as ancient are, in fact, ancient. What they add to the picture is a whole lot of additional genetic diversity within each of those lineages, that has evolved much more recently. That's interesting, of course, but it provides no support for a claim that ancient humans were not genetically diverse.

3) None of these studies were attempting to count the total number of HLA-DRB1 lineages or alleles in the past. That's not possible, because we don't even know how many alleles there are in the present! New DRB1 alleles are being discovered all the time in modern humans, especially in Africa, where genetic diversity is highest. And even among those we know about, we haven't completely sequenced them all. So what these studies were doing was taking subsets of the known alleles or lineages and tracing them backwards in time to estimate when they first diverged. For instance, von Salomé (2007) is not claiming that there were only four lineages of DRB1 around five million years ago. Rather, it is claiming that there were four lineages that gave rise to the twelve modern lineages included in their analysis. There could have been any number of other lineages in that same ancient era, that either went extinct or gave rise to modern alleles that weren't included in the study.

So, yeah, it is completely wrong to say that Ayala claimed there were X ancient lineages and then Bergstrom and von Salomé "adjusted" that to Y and Z. These studies did not define lineages in the same way, and their results do not apply to the same sets of alleles.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 22 Dec 2014 #permalink

Haha, oh lord, that's how tired I am--I managed to paste my own modem specs at the start of the last post. Feel free to delete, Jason.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 22 Dec 2014 #permalink

A common theme at this blog is that I don’t like blanket statements to the effect that science and religion are incompatible.

Would you agree that science and faith are incompatible?

@G: Doesn't Catholicism insist on non-allegorical interpretations of Adam and Eve's "ensoulment" and of the Resurrection? Are they not a mainstream denomination? As for those denominations which have decided the Bible is allegorical, if Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the whale, Lot and the pillar of salt, etc., are allegories, what are the purposes of these allegories? I ask because the Bible makes more sense to me as a hodge-podge of fiction (by many authors) than as a set of moral allegories. The main unifying theme I see in the OT is that one should do what the priests and prophets say or their God will smite you - exactly the message a cult's leaders would wish to convey. However, if your point was simply that some denominations are whackier than others, I agree.

@Anton Mates: Thank you. (Your comment read extremely well despite your tiredness.)

JimV #11: @G: Doesn’t Catholicism insist on non-allegorical interpretations of Adam and Eve’s “ensoulment” and of the Resurrection? Are they not a mainstream denomination?

Indeed. The Holy Roman Catholic Church is the single largest Christian* denomination in the world. And the Holy Roman Catholic Church has indeed stated that Catholics are not free to accept polygenism:
Adam, Eve, and Evolution

It is equally impermissible to dismiss the story of Adam and Eve and the fall (Gen. 2–3) as a fiction. A question often raised in this context is whether the human race descended from an original pair of two human beings (a teaching known as monogenism) or a pool of early human couples (a teaching known as polygenism).

In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: "When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own" (Humani Generis 37).

I like to bring this up when ill-informed Catholics brag up their church's science-friendliness in general, and acceptance of evolution in specific.

* I understand that there are some Protestants who insist that Catholics are not true Christians. They are wrong and they can go f*ck themselves.

By Bayesian Bouff… (not verified) on 24 Dec 2014 #permalink

On the general theme of compatibility of science and religion, I can recommend the book Science and Religion: 5 Questions, ed. Gregg Caruso, ISBN-13: 978-8792130518 for a broad spectrum of current opinions on the topic.

By Bayesian Bouff… (not verified) on 24 Dec 2014 #permalink

Re Jesse @ #4

It's worse then that. There are two creation stories in Genesis, the first one saying that humans were created after all the other animals and the second one saying that humans were created before the other animals.

By colnago80 (not verified) on 24 Dec 2014 #permalink

Anton--

Thanks for the explanation. I suspected that Bonnette didn't know what he was talking about, but it's good to people to put some meat on the bones of that suspicion.

You write as though, in your mind, a very confused battle is raging:

"All too often the would-be reconciler imagines his job to be complete when he has shown that science and doctrine do not flatly contradict each other. [? Huh ?] This is setting the bar rather low. The real issue is whether a plausible and satisfying reconciliation can be achieved. "

...

@ 6 : "I don’t see why a person cannot reasonably say that science is good for answering some questions, while religious faith is good for others.

Of course, this is an academic point. In practice I think there are all sorts of arguments to be made against the veracity of religious claims, both their substance and the methods by which those claims are said to be established. I just don’t think the problem is a fundamental incompatibility with science."

Really, the incompatibility is "fundamental"-- i.e. it cannot be finessed. Something leads you to balk at coming to such a clear and definitive conclusion. To me, it looks like it's based on a fear of something. Who is it that has supposedly shown--ever, anywhere-- that " science and [religious] doctrine do not flatly contradict each other" ?

You've sought refuge in, "The main problem I have is that “religion” means so many different things to different people that it is pointless to paint with such a broad brush."
as though there is some reason why we couldn't be quite clear about what is intended by the term "religion" if we wanted to be so clear. We could specify "Abrahamic religions" (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) or, alternatively, "monotheisms"--effectively, these same three, in the main, but also including any monotheism which purports to claim that the world we refer to as reality--that in which we are supposed to in fact exist--is the product of a supreme deity's creative act.

"A secondary point is that science is vast, and most of it does not address anything of interest to the world’s major religions."

Huh? Did you actually think carefully about that before you wrote it?

How are the explanations of biological evolution as science's evidence-based theories have it and as religion's deity-based theories have it anything other than completely irreconcilable as matters of fact?
-----
Have you never read or have you forgotten ever having read this, from Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape (at page 225 (conclusion of chapter four, "Religion") :

Finally, we come to the kernel of confusion that has been the subject of this section--the irrelevant claim that 'a great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction. [99]' The fact that certain people can reason poorly with a clear conscience--or can do so while saying that they have a clear conscience--proves absolutely nothing about the compatibility of religious and scientific ideas, goals, or ways of thinking. It is possible to be wrong and not know it (we call this 'ignorance'). It is possible to be wrong and to know it, but to be reluctant to incur the social cost of admitting this publicly (we call this 'hypocrisy'). And it may also be possible to be wrong, to dimly glimpse this fact, but to allow the fear of being wrong to increase one's commitment to one's erroneous beliefs (we call this 'self-deception'). It seems clear that these frames of mind do an unusual amount of work in the service of religion."

By proximity1 (not verified) on 29 Dec 2014 #permalink

I thought that the by-now-clear-import of the scientific theories which encompass biological evolution was that human beings, or what we refer to as "our own kind," were formerly, in their earliest and prototypical forms, the products of other, prior, mammals from which both our biological ancestors and those of our other primate cousins only gradually emerged.

That must logically suggest, if not prove, that the earliest human-like primate creatures were offspring of a mixed parentage--neither of which was nor could not have itself been thoroughly human-like. What came to be deemed our direct ancestors came gradually from this interbred mixture--replete with some of grades of variation in morphology, some of which "took," and persisted, and some of which didn't and were lost---at least to the descendant lines from which we're derived.

There's a subliminal message contained in this account and perhaps that message profoundly frightens us: we're still evolving. What is today considered "human" and what has, over uncounted years been called that, is practically bound to evolve out of much or indeed any resemblance to its present or former selves unless, in the interim, a catastrophic event occurs which spells extinction for all then-living humans.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 29 Dec 2014 #permalink